Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Fashion on the Ration: 1940s Street style

I visited the London Imperial War Museum's Fashion on the Ration: 1940s Street Style exhibition a while back and felt it was worth sharing, despite the fact that my recent schedule means that it has taken me a while to sit down and write about it. The exhibition explores how rationing affected the way that women dressed during the war and how the limitations led to incredible creativity. In was VE Day weekend when my friend Chloe and I visited, which made the content all the more poignant.

A female member of ARP staff applies her lipstick, Kingston House 1940 © IWM

This fascinating collection of clothes, accessories, photographs and film clips, offers an insight into the reality of day-to-day dressing during the wartime era. It's a wonderful opportunity to see the uniforms for the women's branches of the armed forces. I've seen them many times in photographs, (my grandmother was a Wren), but up close you can see the level of craftsmanship that went into them. The military uniforms are actually incredibly well cut and stylish, with great attention paid to details like buttons and seams.

Farm workers and factory workers had more practical outfits, swapping pencil skirts for trousers and overalls, but what struck me most was the effort that women still made with their appearance. Even if their clothes were practical and non-negotiable, their hair was still neatly styled and many had a face of immaculate makeup that would put me to shame on a Monday morning!

During WWII there was a genuine concern that letting physical standards slip was a sign of low morale and, while I'm sure there are women who would challenge this notion, I think many of us can relate to the idea of wanting to look and feel our best during challenging times. I know I literally paint on my game face on the days that I need a boost  – it's just as effective and far more appropriate than Dutch courage in most situations!

It is inspirational to see women with so much pride, dignity and glamour during war time, and particularly important to remind ourselves how lucky we are to live in a world without rationing. It must have been so challenging to maintain a personal style without the luxury of treating yourself to a new outfit or lipstick once in a while, but the upside to austerity is that it certainly breeds creativity. Amongst the accessories on display at the exhibition are a pair of earrings that are believed to have been made from the windscreen of a crashed German aircraft.

An example of how British women dressed in wartime utility ©IWM

The displays also include examples of the 'Utility' clothing that was introduced by the government in 1941 to keep clothing prices down, producing items that were cost-effective, hard wearing and made the most of the materials available. Naturally the public were sceptical initially, but opinion changed when the clothing proved to be stylish despite the low cost. This became the first time that high-end designers created clothes for the mass market, which undoubtedly paved the way for designers' diffusion ranges that we see today.

Wartime was not only tough for consumers but understandably for retailers too, who had to come up with their own creative solutions – one of which was the gas mask handbag. Presumably if a stylish lady was going to have to tote round a gas mask on a daily basis it may as well look like a cute handbag! Even beauty companies like Coty diversified, contributing to the war effort by producing army foot powder and anti-gas ointment alongside their heavily taxed face powders.

Respirator Carrier Handbag © IWM

One of the most surprising elements of the exhibition was the amount of colour and print included. I can only assume that this is because, much like the images I have included here, our visual references from the era are typically in black and white. It is easy to forget that in fact a vast array of prints were utilised.

On a historical level it is a very interesting exhibition, however it is on a human level that it really comes into its own. Seeing women who faced a terrifyingly uncertain future, separated from their sons and husbands, adapting to work in a manner that many had never had to before, filled me with a sense of pride and awe. We all need the occasional reminder of how lucky we are to live in a free country, and to see these women accomplish so many things with a brave and beautifully painted face? To me that's real inspiration.

Fashion on the Ration: 1940s Street Style at the Imperial War Museum, London until 31 August 2015
© Rock & Runway

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